Well, we finally made it downtown, and, miraculously, I didn't go ballistic. There was absolutely no parking downtown, so Mrs. Towne had to pull over and drop us off outside the Main Street Mall. I was ripping my seatbelt off before the van even came to a stop, and bolted out as soon as Mrs. Towne put the van in park. I quickly thanked Emily's mom for the ride before running into the mall entrance, thankful for some freedom and open space.
Main Street was buzzing with activity, and the mall tower, the second tallest tower in town, was bustling with teenagers. There were about twenty people standing outside the four sets of double doors smoking, and it felt like I was going to choke when I walked by. I covered my mouth and nose and hurried through the main entrance.
Hanging out by a bench about five feet from the door was the mass of dark clothing that I recognized as Liz and her friends. Liz peered between two goths in trench coats, saw me, and waved.
"Lia!" she called. "We're over here!"
Emily and the Padawans caught up to me. Emily glared at me for not waiting for her, and I shrugged her off and went to meet up with Liz and the others.
When I reached the bench, I was startled at the number of people that were going to hang out with us. I counted heads, and there were twenty-two people in our group. Most were people I knew, but there were six I hadn't met before.
First there was Liz, wearing a black trench coat and matching ski hat. She was still acting hyper, but nowhere near to the same extreme as earlier. On her right was Katherine, wearing a nice denim coat and a pair of khakis and sporting a brown leather shoulder bag. To her right was Ann, wearing a blue summer dress, and Janet, wearing a Pokemon T-shirt and gothic pants. Behind them, Arleen was fixing the bows and fake flowers sewn to her red knitted hat while Caitlyn was yelling at someone on her cell phone. Lita, wearing a Pirates of the Caribbean T-shirt and her hiking boots, was barely visible behind them.
"What took you so long?" Amara, wearing a pair of high black suede boots, asked. "It's well after six. We were beginning to think you weren't coming."
"We hit traffic," Emily said. "We got here as soon as we could."
"Well, maybe now we can get out of this mall," one of Liz's gothic friends said with a shudder. "Too many people in here."
"Relax Richie," Liz said to him, "it's just a little crowd. There's nothing to be afraid of."
Richie's eyes shifted around, and he turned his head down to look at his black boots. His thin, boney face was pierced in multiple places including both eyebrows, his nose, and below his bottom lip. His shady appearance reminded me of a weasel, and he gave even me the creeps. I could see the Padawans shifting nervously out of the corner of my eye.
"Before we leave," Taylor said, "there's someone I'd like you to meet." She gestured to the heavy white girl with black hair next to her. "Everyone," Taylor said, "this is my girlfriend Michelle."
"Hello," Michelle said in a high-pitched voice.
"So this is the famous Taylor's girlfriend," Katherine said, "it's very nice to meet you."
"I don't recognize you," Liz said. "Do you go to CHS?"
"Just because you don't recognize her doesn't mean she doesn't go to Central," a tall guy with long, brown dreadlocks said to Liz. "You certainly can't claim to know everyone there."
"Oh shaddup Patrick," Liz said, punching his arm. "I can claim to know most of the 'freaks and geeks', and she certainly isn't one of the preppies or jocks. Am I right?"
"Right," Michelle said, "I go to Eastman high."
"Then I feel obligated to hate you," I said, "my lacrosse team plays yours this Saturday, and they're big rivals." I laughed. "I'm just kidding," I continued, "it's a pleasure to finally meet you."
"Hey while we're on introductions," Liz said, "I'd like you all to meet my other friends. This little one here is Richie." She elbowed the kid with the shifty eyes, who was shorter than me and probably stood at five feet. He glared at her, mumbled something inaudible, and took a couple of steps away. "This is Patrick," she said pointing to the guy with dreads. He waved and smiled. "This is Rob," Liz said, patting another tall and robust guy in a black trench coat on the arm. He gave us a toothy smile and rustled his black hair nervously. "And this is Bridget," Liz continued, gesturing to the girl with the purple pigtailed braids I saw earlier at lunch, "and finally, this is Becca."
A girl with blue-streaked blonde hair, a black and white corset, and a red velvet blazer glared at her. "Oh thanks Liz," she said, "I feel real special being last."
"You're welcome," Liz said. "Now guys, these are my friends from my lunch table."
She introduced us, and Becca and Bridget smiled at the Padawans and whispered to each other. I rolled my eyes and hoped that they weren't just like Liz in the hot guy department.
Caitlyn slammed her phone shut and wailed in anger. We looked at her quizzically, and Arleen asked what was wrong.
"I have to leave at nine," Caitlyn grumbled, "some stupid church thing first thing in the morning. As if I didn't get enough church on Sundays, I now apparently have been volunteered to help the out on Saturdays too. This fucking sucks."
"Wait, does that mean that we'll have to leave too?" Arleen asked.
"If you want to get a ride from my mom," Caitlyn replied, "then you and Lita have to leave with me."
"Shit," Arleen said.
"We'll miss you," Liz said, sticking out her lower lip and looking like a sad puppy.
"Well since I have to leave early," Caitlyn said, "let's get the hell out of here and make the most of our evening."
"Finally," Richie said quietly.
"Wait a sec," Becca said, "I wanted to take a quick stop in the gothic store if you don't mind." Richie groaned and paced around.
"Where is it?" Katherine asked.
"Third floor," Liz said, "hey, I know, we can take the ESCALATOR!"
"Yeah!" Becca screamed. "Come on guys! Let's go on the ESCALATOR!"
Liz and her gothic friends ran down the hall, and caught up in their excitement, we trotted after them. Richie, still mumbling to himself, brought up the rear.
Crowds of preppies carrying designer and preppie teenage clothing store bags parted as we hurried past. Several made snide remarks, and a few laughed mockingly at us. One preppie, chewing gum with her mouth open, said directly to me, "what, is this the like freak parade or something? Hehehehe." I flicked her off as I continued on.
We reached the escalator, and Liz, Becca, Rob, Bridget, and Patrick jumped on. The preppies already on it walked up or down a couple of steps and gave them plenty of space. The rest of us got on the escalator normally. As we rode up to the third floor, the five of them screamed, whooped, and threw us their arms as if they were on a roller coaster. Everyone was staring at them, but they were in their own little world.
When we got to the top, they were screaming as if they had just had the time of their lives. "Let's do that again!" Bridget cried, jumping up and down.
They whooped and ran to the escalator going down. Caitlyn rolled her eyes and looked at her watch impatiently. They cheered as they went down, and then cheered as they went back up. They repeated this process again, and were about to do it a fourth time before Caitlyn yelled at them and reminded them that she had to leave soon. Defeated and upset, they trudged on to the gothic store.
The gothic clothing store was conveniently located next to an overwhelmingly pink store full of jewelry and fuzzy things that couldn't possibly be meant for any girl outside their preteen years. Inside, Britney Spears was playing over the speakers, and several tiny girls that looked to be about thirteen were trying on headbands and spraying cheap perfume all over their wrists. They were giggling uncontrollably, and seemed to be acting worse than even the most hard-core CHS preppie. I guessed that preppies toned it down with age, as surprising as that hypothesis sounds.
The gothic store, meanwhile, was blaring Korn. The people inside were our age and older, and most of them were wearing at least one article of black clothing. They browsed the merchandise calmly, and a few were trying things on. Bridget, Becca and Liz were the most hyper people in there, and the other goths glared at them as they bounced around the store.
"Can you guys make this quick?" Caitlyn asked impatiently. When it was apparent that they didn't hear her, she groaned in annoyance and went over to the clothing racks. I meandered my way through the store, breezing by the racks of black clothing, the cases of body rings, and the shelves of colorful lingerie. I made my way to the T-shirt section, and looked up in awe at the monstrous display of T-shirts. Most of them had band logos, but to my delight, there was a row of Star Wars T-shirts. Six panels depicted six different T-shirt designs: Four were of Darth Vader, one was of Yoda, and one was the Episode IV movie poster. I checked the price tags, and gagged when I saw that they were twenty-five dollars each. What were these things made of, cotton coated with gold? I bet I could get these shirts much cheaper at the comic book store on Pulitzer Ave. I hadn't been there in over a week and a half, and wondered if Bob missed me.
After about ten minutes, when Becca, Bridget and Liz started playing with some colorful thongs in the lingerie section, it became apparent that they were not going to buy anything. Seeing this, Caitlyn yelled at them and ushered them, kicking and screaming, out of the store.
"You can play in there any time you want," Caitlyn said, "the mall's not going anywhere any time soon. This night, however, is."
Reluctantly, they followed her and Richie out of the store. They whooped and hollered all the way down the escalator, and when we got off, we quickly ushered them out of the mall before they decided to ride the escalator again.
The night air was filled with city lights. Half of the windows in the skyscraper were lit up, and I waved at it, knowing my mom was in there somewhere working hard as usual.
The traffic was still heavy but manageable, and people were able to cross the street without having to squeeze in between cars. A couple of taxis drove by, and one young woman in healed boots carrying a Prada shopping bag hailed one of them. A couple of men in black suits passed us by, and they looked as if they had just gotten out of work and were rejoicing that it was finally the weekend. Some groups teenage fashion-savvy girls and a few casual shoppers in normal clothing passed by. There was an incredible diversity of people on the street, and all the hustle and bustle of the town heightened my excitement.
The shops on Main Street were brightly lit passed by a café and saw that is was jammed full of people. Every table was taken, and incoming customers were glaring at the people sitting in them, hoping that their mere stares would get them to relinquish their seats. Even the counters where people stood to drink their coffee were full of people chatting, reading, and talking on the phone. The workers behind the counters prepared food and drink as fast as they could, but were having difficulty keeping up with the constant demand. A waiter served some people sitting on the tables outside their coffee and pastries. I saw Nichole standing at one of the inside counters facing the street and waved, but she was reading a book and didn't see me.
Further down on the other side of the street, I saw a group of finely dressed men and women heading to the theater and opera house at the end of Main Street. Directly across the street, people flocked to the fast food joint, whose gigantic sign on the roof glowed brightly. As we continued down Main Street, we came across the bookstore, which was mobbed as usual. In the windows, I could see it was crowded with shoppers, people reading, and people hanging out in the café within. Arleen and Katherine considered stopping in, but the goths ushered them by.
We came to a one-way side street labeled Stevenson Ave. and turned down it. It was considerably darker than Main Street, but still well lit. On the right was a bar, a Greek pizza place, and a couple of realtors. On the left was a deli, a boarded-up shop, a closed shoe repair shop, and the psychic studio. Giddy, Becca ran over to the studio's door but found it locked. She moaned and looked at their hours posted on their door.
"What idiot doesn't stay open on Friday night?" she grumbled as she returned to the group. "I wanted to get my palms read."
"I can tell you your future right now," Bridget said, snatching her hand and looking at her palm. "Lesse, you will get laid before you die. The end."
She closed Becca's hand and laughed, and Becca glared at her. Rob and Patrick laughed, and I saw Kabea roll her eyes in the background.
As we passed the bar, Liz moaned about how she wasn't old enough to have alcohol. Disinterested in this street, we took a right and ended up on a dark, narrow street called Orca Drive. It consisted entirely of brick-walled apartments that towered four stories into the sky. We quickly headed down the street, taking care to avoid the piles of garbage stacked next to each doorstep, took another right, and ended back up on Main Street.
We crossed the street and went down another side street labeled Thompson Drive. One of the shops down this street contained shiny glass animals and other small sculptures, and Arleen insisted on stopping in. Forced to oblige by her obsession with shiny things, we followed.
The place reeked of potpourri, but all the pretty things were a delightful distraction from the smell. Liz and Becca oogled over a bowl of shiny blue glass beads, and the guys looked thoroughly bored. Arleen was freaking out over all the cute and shiny glass animals, and was having trouble deciding which one to buy. I went to a case of pewter figurines and saw one that looked like a Bantha. I got excited at first, but after close examination, realized that it was just an elephant.
Arleen decided to settle on a cat figurine, and after she checked out, we left the store. We took a left and ended up on the street with Zapo's Market, the grocery store with the unique foreign foods. It was large for its location on a tiny side street, and it and its parking lot took up most of the left side of Brook Drive. Taylor and Michelle stopped in to grab a bite to eat while the rest of us waited outside. After five more minutes, they emerged munching on pears, and we continued on.
We spent a great deal of time on the next side street we visited, Douglas Way. Rob and Patrick, giddy with excitement, hurried into the vintage records store, dragging all of us with them.
The place was covered from floor to ceiling with records. They covered every square inch of the walls, and there were huge bins of them on the floor. Awed by the amount of old music, we took our time in there and browsed the bins. Even Caitlyn, who had before been antsy to get moving, slowed down to admire the walls of records.
I pawed through a bin labeled "P-Q", and found a lot of Pink Floyd records. To my disappointment, most of them looked very beat up, and they all had a "used" sticker in the corner. They must have had ten copies of "The Wall" and five of "Dark Side of the Moon". I looked up on the walls, and found a couple of Pink Floyd records up there as well. At first I wondered why they weren't in the bin, until I looked closely and saw "New" stickers in the corner. I looked around and found that all the records on the wall were new. It was incredible.
"Dude!" Rob exclaimed. "Check out all the Led Zeppelins in here!"
"Dude," Patrick called back, "I just found some Beatles records!"
"Hey look!" Becca cried, pulling a record out of another bin. "Jimmy Hendrix! Sweet!"
"I found Eric Clapton," Bridget said.
"George Harrison, sweet!" Liz squealed.
"Hey look, Robert Plant," Caitlyn said, "this place really has everything."
The store clerk, a young guy that looked like a relic of the sixties with his multi-colored knitted hat and rose-colored glasses, stepped out from behind the counter. Thoroughly pleased at our enthusiasm, he joined Rob and Patrick.
"Most of these Zeppelins are in pretty good shape," he said, fingering through the "L" bin. He pulled out a copy of "Houses of the Holy" and said, "this one's used, but it only has a couple of scratches in 'The Rain Song' and one in 'No Quarter'. They're barely noticeable, so it's almost like new."
He took the record out of its sleeve and showed it to Rob. He pointed to a couple spots on the surface and said, "see, right there."
"They're tiny," Rob said.
"Yes," the clerk said, "it's a very good deal."
"How much?" Rob asked.
I continued to browse the bins, but I didn't recognize most of the artists. I admired the records on the wall. Some of them looked almost mint, and I doubted that they had ever been used. They had probably been bought, played maybe once, and had sat on a shelf until they made their way to this store.
"We have a record player too if you need one," the clerk said.
"I have one at home thanks," Rob replied, "I bought it two summers ago and have started a record collection ever since."
"Well," the clerk said, "you know what no record collection should be without? A Beatles record."
"I have a couple," Rob said, "and Pat here was just looking at some."
"Excellent," said the clerk. They made their way over to the "B" bins and joined Patrick. I meandered over to the front, and found a glass case containing a few records. Inside was a pristine copy of Led Zeppelin IV with a sign next to it that said "mint". Among the other mint records in the case were "Love" by The Beatles, and Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland". I looked at the price tags, and almost choked when I saw how much the store wanted for them. I wasn't thinking of buying any, but still, it was a lot.
Rob ended up buying two Led Zeppelin records and three Beatles, Patrick got a Jimmy Hendrix album, and Becca got a George Harrison record. As we were walking out, the store clerk waved and said, "Come again sometime, man!"
Across the street was a pizza place, a drug store and pharmacy, another bar, and an art supplies store. Caitlyn led us all in there, and we browsed the racks of art supplies. There was an entire section of the store that was dedicated to charcoal. On the wall was a sample charcoal drawing of a woman's head. I admired the skills of the artist. The lines were so soft, and she looked so real. She put my drawing of the Sith Lady to shame. I wished I were as talented as this artist.
The store had every kind of drawing and painting equipment one could possibly imagine. One floor was dedicated entirely to mats and frames, and another floor contained clay and sculpting supplies. Caitlyn would have spent hours in there if we weren't pressed for time. She bought a pack of colored pencils and we moved on.
We made our way back to Main Street and found that it was even more crowded than before. A group of college kids driving by in an SUV screamed and waved beer bottles at the people on the sidewalks. Two cars behind them, a limo drove silently by, no doubt heading toward the theater.
My stomach began to rumble. The turkey sandwich I had earlier was clearly not enough, and I decided to drag the group into the bakery and patisserie on Main Street. To my surprise, the line at the counter stretched out of the store and a couple of feet down the sidewalk. I was hesitant to get in line, but once I saw how fast the people behind the counter were serving their customers, I decided that the wait wouldn't be too long and got in line. Lita, Janet, Katherine, Becca, and Liz, who were also hungry, got in line with me, while the others milled around the sidewalk outside the bakery and neighboring law school building. Much to my annoyance, Emily and the Padawans got in line and stuck close to me.
They had been sticking close to me all night. It seemed no matter how fast I walked, how much I zigzagged, or how deeply I integrated myself into the crowd of my other friends and the goths, Emily and the Padawans were right next to me. Every time we went into a store, they would stay within three feet of me while one or two stood by the entrance. No matter where I went, they were there next to me like a bunch of bodyguards. It was annoying. Why couldn't they find someone else to latch onto? Liz and her gothic friends were the ones who were more likely to cause trouble. They're behavior only proved my suspicions that they were keeping an eye on me for some reason or another. All I wanted to know was what the hell was going on. Emily was especially annoying because of all her lies and secrecy, which were ineffective because it was obvious that they were following me. Perhaps they were here to keep me quiet about the whole Jedi thing? That had to be it. I could see no other reason for them to follow me like this.
The Padawans, however, must have been feeling a little crowded too. Becca and Bridget had noticed the guys' good looks, and they and Liz kept walking close to them and drooling all over them. Lita, Katherine, and Amara managed to keep Liz and her friends at bay, but they too were visibly fawning over the Padawans all night. Whenever one was close to a Padawan, they would stare at him dreamily. However, the disgrace of Liz's behavior yesterday kept them in line, and they were careful not to make the Padawans feel too uncomfortable. Maybe their obsession with them would eventually fade away and they would all go back to normal.
I tried to ignore the Padawans and started chatting with Katherine. Ann had been very jumpy this evening and stuck very close to us. She still looked extremely worried, especially when we were out on the street. I hoped that Katherine could shed some light on all this. Maybe she knew what was wrong with Ann.
"I noticed it too," Katherine said, "and no, I don't know what's wrong with her. Yesterday she asked how many people would be in our group, and expressed concern about being out so late."
"Do you even have a guess as to what's wrong?" I asked.
"My best guess is just ordinary fear. This is a large town, some of these side streets are sketchy, and it is getting late. I guess any ordinary person would be nervous."
"Are you?" I asked.
"A little," she said, "but safety in numbers is a proven fact. I feel more comfortable with all these people. I think Ann is too, but she's still a little more afraid than what would be considered normal."
"Do you think she'd be willing to talk about it?" I asked.
"Nah," Katherine replied, "Ann is very shy, and wouldn't be very open to a conversation like that. It's very hard to talk about your fears, and she wouldn't want us to worry about her. I think it's best just to wait and let her open up to us if and when she wants to."
Katherine had a point. I had never thought about that before. I always assumed that everyone was like me and liked to talk to someone about their problems. Katherine was so good with people, and could understand everyone. If she weren't set on becoming a singer, she would make a great counselor.
Despite the efforts of the workers inside, the line was moving slowly. We waited outside for another five minutes, and only moved about a foot. There were only four people between Lita and the door, and the line stretched well behind us. Richie was hiding in the doorway of the law school building, Rob and Patrick were leaning against the wall of the bakery looking like thugs, and Bridget was flirting with some young guy passing by, who looked desperate to get away. Caitlyn was on the phone again, and Arleen disappeared into a shop next to the law school. I had no idea where Taylor and Michelle ran off to, and Amara and Ann went to a go get a cup of coffee at the coffee shop on the nearby corner.
The crowd on the street suddenly swelled with well-dressed people, and I guessed that a show must have just gotten out. The people in line scooted against the building to let the mob of people pass. My eyes scanned the crowd, and I was amazed at how many people attended these shows.
Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, the theater and opera house was packed with people who came from all over to see the shows that were put on. The evening shows were very expensive, and those who attended them took the opportunity to dress their best and show off their wealth, prestige, and sophistication. They went to the theater not so much to see a show but more to be seen.
One such crowd passed by us, talking merrily to each other and heading to their limos or the fancy restaurants. Katherine looked at them longingly.
"Someday," she said half to herself and half to us, " I'll be in one of those shows. One of these days, these people will be talking about me like that."
A woman, who had obviously been drinking before the show, sauntered down the street, laughing and clinging to her boyfriend's arm. They passed by me, and I could smell the wine on her breath. Behind her, a group of men and women were having an intense conversation about the show they'd just seen walked by.
"I was disappointed in the actor who played Javert," I heard one of the women say as they breezed by. "His voice was way too high. I prefer a tenor in his role. What do you think, Chris?"
I didn't hear the rest of the conversation, because behind them was an even larger group of people. As I scanned the crowd, I could have sworn I saw someone dressed in a black cloak and hood walk by. The person was very tall and well built, and looked to be a man. He walked in the center of the crowd and was mostly hidden by the people around him. I peered through the crowd and tried to get a better view of him, and to my surprise, he turned to look at me. His dark hood obscured most of his face in shadow, but what little I did see was very frightening. Either the streetlight was playing tricks on my eyes, or his skin was a deep red color. I didn't get a good enough look to tell for certain, but his skin looked red to me. The streetlight must have been reflecting in his eyes too, because they looked yellow. I could only stand there speechless as he glared at me with his yellow eyes, turned away, and disappeared down the street as soon as he had come.
What the hell was that? I thought to myself. I must have been seeing things. There was no way on earth that he could have red skin and yellow eyes.
He looked very evil in his cloak and hood, and I wondered who or what he was and where he had come from. I pondered over this for a moment, and then decided to dismiss it as nothing. It must have been some guy in a hooded coat, and the streetlight must have made his skin and eyes look weird. That must have been it.
I looked over at the others and wondered if any of them had seen him. Lita, Janet, and Katherine were chatting and ignoring the world around them, and Becca and Liz were doodling on each other's hands in sharpie and looked oblivious to everything else. Emily and the Padawans, however, were looking in the direction the hooded guy had gone. They clearly had seen him, because they looked very concerned and were talking to each other in hushed tones. Kabea glared down the street but looked afraid, and Emily bit her nails.
"Shit. This is not good." I heard Emily say.
What the hell was going on?